The History of the Distillery

Listoke Gin… a unique heritage created one drop at a time

A LIFE WELL LIVED is about making every moment as pure as possible. It’s about pouring all your experience and all your dreams into the now…. so that all your tomorrows offer the most wonderful of pasts.

A gin well-loved is produced in exactly the same way: Every single drop must pay homage to its ingredients so that its very essence reflects that which went before it.

At Listoke, distilling the past to make a better present is in our DNA… literally. Climb through our family tree and you’ll find some of history’s greatest distillers including giants of Scotch whisky like the Haigs and the Steins, alongside the Jamesons of Irish whiskey fame. Add in some of Ireland’s most important brewers and you’d be right in thinking that we know more than a little about producing world class alcohol.

We can trace our family roots back over a thousand years — back to when the Haigs were the De Hagas and the Jamesons were the Jamesones. But that really is, ancient history.

Instead, let’s look at our distilling roots. These were first formed in the early 1600s in a tiny town called Alloa in the lowlands of Scotland. There, three neighbours — the Jamesons, the Haigs and the Steins — were taking their first tentative steps towards creating a distilling dynasty that would eventually span the globe and last for centuries. Along the way they would make and lose fortunes, make history, make Ireland the whiskey capital of the world and make Listoke House a destination for a unique blend of distilling families.

The history-making starts with one Robert Haig who in 1655 unintentionally became Scotland’s first official whisky maker when he was hauled before the Kirk Sessions for the crime of distilling whisky on the Sabbath. The written account of “a caldron on fyre, and a stand reiking” represents the first official record of whisky distilling in Scotland and, effectively, makes the Haig family Scotland’s oldest whisky distillers.

Around this same period, an impoverished Scottish laird named Alexander Cairnes left his family’s lands near Galloway in southern Scotland to seek his fortune in West Donegal, Ireland. Despite humble enough beginnings as a general agent for some of the major landowners then recently planted in Ulster by King James, he quickly prospered and within decades his family had accumulated substantial land holdings in both Donegal and Tyrone. Later still, his family would become brewers and distillers of note. And, just as the descendants of the Steins, the Jamesons and the Haigs would find their way to Listoke centuries later, so too would the Cairnes family.

Uisge beatha

The first commercial distillery of note operated by the Stein family was at Kennetpans, not far from Alloa in the ‘wee county’ of Clackmannanshire. Its founding date is lost in the mists of time but local lore has it that the Steins acquired the art of distilling ‘Uisge beatha’ — the gaelic for ‘water of life’ — from the friars at a neighbouring monastery after they ‘acquired’ their lands in the 1500s.

By the 1730s, however, Kennetpans was Scotland’s largest distillery and on a scale never seen before. Coming a close second was another Stein-owned distillery in Kilbagie. These became so big by 1770 that the duty they paid was greater than the land tax receipts for the whole of Scotland.

By this time a Haig had married a Stein and their five sons were learning the art of distilling at Kennetpans and Kilbagie. It was this line of Haigs that would go on to form the famous Haig brand and create the massive Cameronbridge Distillery which, even today, is the largest spirit distillery in Europe.

Marriage

But let’s go back to around 1670 when the first marriage between a Jameson (Thomas) and a Stein (Margaret) was recorded. This was the first of many marriages between the two families — marriages that were as much about securing wealth and alliances as they may have been about love and devotion. Their great grandson would also marry a Stein, while his son would go on to marry a Haig (as would his brother!) and later on a Jameson would marry a Guinness from the famous brewing family. Suffice to say that, as was in keeping with the times, the Steins, the Jamesons and the Haigs all became relatives as well as allies and business partners.

And it wasn’t long before this golden triangle of distillers was joined in marriage and in business by the Cairnes and, in the 1800s, by the Woolseys, a family who will go down in history as owners of the very last major distillery in Drogheda — that is, of course, until Listoke Distillery rekindled the family distilling flame in 2016.

1777

The year 1777 was a seminal year for Scotch whisky and one that offered a unique opportunity for us here at Listoke Distillery to marry the first fruits of our modern day still with that distilled by our ancestors more than two centuries ago. For it was in this year that the first official export of Scotch whisky was recorded when the Steins and Haigs sent 2,000 gallons across the border to cash in on the lucrative market in London for gin.

1777 was also the year Listoke House was literally put on the map when Taylor & Skinner’s published their first Road Map of Ireland.

That same year the Rev. William Woolsey of Priorland Dundalk married Mary Anne Bellingham, of Castlebellingham. Two of their daughters would go on to marry sons of the John Jameson of Irish whiskey fame, while their youngest daughter, Mary Anne, would marry William Elliot Cairnes — who in 1825 would found his own brewery in Drogheda after learning the business from his father-in-law.

It was also in 1777 that the now famous John Jameson made plans to move with his young family from Alloa in Scotland to Dublin where his uncle John Stein owned two major distilleries: one in Bow Street, the other in Marrowbone Lane. Jameson’s wife was a Haig, so his collaboration with Stein brought the might of three very powerful distilling families to bear on the Dublin whiskey industry and his arrival marks the first step in the story of the whiskey brand that still bears his signature today.

Although Jameson began as General Manager at Bow Lane distillery, by 1805 he had a substantial shareholding in the business and by 1810 owned it outright while his son, James, became owner of the Marrowbone Lane distillery a decade later.

Just before that, in 1812, the first connection between the Jamesons and County Louth was forged when one of John Jameson’s daughters, Janet, married John Woolsey, founder of the thriving Woolsey brewery in Castlebellingham.

Indeed, that second decade of the 19th century would see multiple marriages between the families of Haig, Jameson, Woolsey, Bellingham and Cairnes. So many — and so strong — were these unions, they would anchor the family names in the Drogheda countryside and form a unique bond between Scotland’s ‘wee county’ of Clackmananshire and Ireland’s ‘wee county’ of Louth. Shortly after Janet Jameson married John Woolsey, John’s sister Elizabeth Sophia married Janet’s brother James Jameson in 1815. The following year John’s other sister, Mary Anne Woolsey, married William Elliot Cairnes, who would go on to found the Drogheda Brewery and, in 1855, buy Listoke House.

Soon after (1889), the business of the Woolsey brewery of Castlebellingham and the Cairnes brewery in Drogheda amalgamated under the name of Castlebellingham and Drogheda Breweries Ltd. In 1923 brewing was concentrated solely in Drogheda and, ten years later, the company’s name was shortened to Cairnes Ltd. The company continued to employ hundreds in the Drogheda area and export its famous stout and beers all over the world before finally closing its gates in 1960 when ownership passed to, by then, distant cousins in the Guinness family.

The houses

But while the efforts of the Jameson, Woolesy, Cairnes and Bellingham families down through the years has left counties Louth and Meath with a rich heritage of brewing and distilling, they also left this part of Ireland with a wonderful collection of houses. Among them, Milestown House in Castlebellingham — home to generations of the Woolseys, the Cairnes and the Jamesons — still stands. So too does the Bellingham family’s castle in Castlebellingham. Much of the original Cairnes family residence in Drogheda, Stameen House, is also still intact and today functions as the Boyne Valley Hotel.

The beautiful 18th century Beaulieu House on the outskirts of Drogheda was also once a Jameson family home. John Jameson of the distillery that still bears his name also kept a town house in the centre of Drogheda for many years, though it was owned by the Woolsey Jameson Distillery. Sadly, the original house at Listoke is no longer with us but its replacement occupies the footprint of the original, while many of the buildings for the distillery and coffee shop date back over a century. However, the lush and extensive gardens at Listoke are clearly old enough to have been strolled through by our Jameson, Haig, Woolsey and Cairnes ancestors and it’s hard not to imagine their footsteps and their conversations when we are harvesting the botanicals we use in our gin.

Giants

So, from distilling giants like Haig and Jameson we come to Listoke Distillery, the newest in a long lineage and, most definitely, the smallest. But if, as the saying goes, we are standing on the shoulders of giants, we didn’t climb up here before first picking the pockets of our forefathers for the recipe of their success. And throughout their history this has been as brilliantly simple as it has been consistent…. Allow every single drop you produce pay homage to its ingredients, its process and its history - so that its very essence reflects all that went before it.

That’s the recipe that delivered the spirits that made the Steins, the Haigs and the Jamesons their names and their fortune, and made the unique brews created by the Woolsey and the Cairnes so popular across the globe.

It’s the same recipe that has helped make Listoke Gin as popular in Drogheda as it is in Denver, or as asked for in New York as in Nanjing — or as wonderful to sip on a quayside in Cannes as a castle wall in Scotland.

From its first faltering steps in the ‘wee county’ of Scotland to its history-filled footprint in the ‘wee county’ of Ireland, you could say that Listoke Gin has been 500 years in the making… one single precious drop at a time.

Testimonials

Join the Listoke Gin Lovers League.

  • “What a gin. Punchy and bright, it really is amazing liquid which doesn't have to rely on hype or backstory, you just need to try it!”

    — Paddy Noir, Renowned Drinks Consultant Dublin

  • “A huge thank you to Blanaid & all the team at Listoke Distillery for hosting such a great evening. Greeted with a large glass of Listoke 1777 Gin, accompanied by Fever Tree tonic, ice, black peppercorns and a shaving of lemon, our first instruction was "don't let your glass go empty!”

    — Pat Beechinor, Listoke Gin School Visitor from Kinsale, Co. Cork

  • “We really enjoyed the day at Listoke Gin School and highly recommend it. We were so impressed by both the passion and enthusiasm of the Listoke team, matched with the unique and authentic location. It's a great idea for a couples day out or as a group as friends. We're hoping to visit again!”

    — Gerry Murray, Listoke Gin School Visitor from Fingal, Co. Dublin

  • “Listoke 1777 Gin is bold and full of flavour. As soon as you open the bottle you are greeted with a bountiful aroma with floral, fruity and earthy notes. The gin has personality, impressive depth of flavour and a complexity that reveals piney juniper, citrus and herbaceous notes, and a lingering finish with a touch of spice. Best enjoyed in a gin and tonic, Listoke 1777 Gin is versatile, with orange peel, rosemary and cinnamon all producing moreish servings.”

    — The Gin Guide

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